Exclusive: Health board seeks guardianship after father says treatment worse than virus, which he insists boy, 9, doesn’t have

The father of an HIV-positive nine-year-old Kiwi is being taken to court by health authorities after fighting to prevent doctors from treating his son.

The man, whose identity is suppressed to protect the child, said he did not accept tests that showed his boy was HIV positive.

Even if his son had HIV, he questioned the link to Aids and the value of administering treatment which he believed had side-effects worse than the impact of the virus.

A spokesman for the district health board that is taking the legal action refused to comment ahead of the court hearing.

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A lawyer who specialises in medical cases confirmed she was acting for the man. She refused to comment on the case, which is imminent. The lawyer would not say when the case would be heard out of concern the father would attract adverse attention from those who felt strongly about his views.

The father told the Weekend Herald his son was a normal, healthy child who loved playing sport. He said the boy did not know he tested as HIV positive when just a few months old.

Being told of his son's diagnosis had been a devastating shock. "When you're told you are HIV positive, it's like a death sentence."

The boy was thought to have contracted the virus through his mother who was thought to have caught the virus as a health worker.

The father said doctors later warned him if his son didn't take HIV medication, he was likely to get an illness that would kill him within 12 months.

Years had passed since the warning, he said, and his boy remained healthy and strong.

His continued good health, along with internet research into HIV, had convinced him to resist the doctors' urges to treat his son.

He said he was concerned any treatment would lead to side effects which would make his son ill. "It's not the illness that kills people, it's the medications that are killing people."

The insistence on treatment appears to have come after doctors found a fall in the number of white blood cells, which fight infection.

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In the face of the court action, the man said he had agreed to allow the health board to visit the family home to administer the medication because he was refusing to do so.

The court action was now a bid by the hospital to take a guardianship role over the child for the purposes of medical treatment.

Aids Foundation executive director Shaun Robinson said the science of HIV was clear after 30 years of dealing with the HIV epidemic. "The body of science is unequivocal that HIV is linked to AIDs. HIV destroys the immune system over time, then other infections can take over the body.

"The medications stop HIV from destroying the immune system and allow it to replenish to an extent."

Mr Robinson said the critical decision for clinicians and patients was the point at which medication was required. This is decided by monitoring the white blood cells that are a critical part of the immune system.

When to tell a child he or she was HIV positive was decided between family and doctors. It was a balance between managing a life-long disease and protecting a child from prejudice.

Mr Robinson said there were a mix of different reactions to an HIV diagnosis. "Quite often, people will go into denial."

HIV

What is the prevalence of HIV in New Zealand?

The Aids Foundation estimates 2000 people here are HIV-positive. About 50 of those are children.

How is HIV contracted? The most common routes are through unprotected sexual intercourse, sharing of needles and direct blood-to-blood contact with an HIV-positive person. It is also possible through being born to an HIV-positive mother, although drugs can protect the unborn child.

What are the symptoms? The virus can exist for years without any sign someone is carrying it, eventually degrading the immune system. Some people will experience flu-like symptoms after transmission as the body produces antibodies to fight it.

What does medication do? It comes in pill form and suppresses the virus while supporting the immune system. Some people have side effects including headaches and stomach upsets while others experience no issues. The drugs cost $17,000 a year but residents and citizens pay only $5 per prescription. For those with a community services card, it is free.

Is HIV a "death sentence"? No, definitely not, although it once was. Plenty of people with HIV manage the condition with medication to live long and productive lives.